Girls in STEM

girls STEM
Twenty-one percent of girls said their parents encouraged them to be actresses and only 10 percent were encouraged to be engineers
— Reno electrical engineer Karen Purcell in her book titled “Unlocking Your Brilliance: Smart Strategies for Women to Thrive in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. (1)

According to a September 2013 report by the United States Census Bureau, only 26 percent of employees in STEM fields were women, while 74 percent were men.[2] This is a large division considering women comprise 48 percent of the U.S. workforce.[3] Those numbers are similar in Nevada, where only 1 in 5 undergraduates in the engineering school at the University of Nevada are female[4].

STEM research studies point to a combination of cultural stereotyping and gender cognitive learning differences to understand the deficiency of women in STEM fields. Through all the research though one thing is clear, girls’ achievement and interest in math and science are shaped by their environments.

Although women in science fields have drastically increased since the 1960’s, the stereotype that “math is only for boys” is still prevalent in the 21st century. These stereotypes are exaggerated by misleading portrayals of women in media and underrepresentation of the extensive female STEM role models working in U.S. industries[5]. But a 2014 Accenture survey commissioned by the Women Invent Tomorrow Campaign found that the problem also derives from parental influence. It appears that parents of girls often do not consider STEM careers when advising their daughters. The survey found parents, while very influential in their daughters’ decisions about courses, were ill informed about STEM career paths[6]. Researchers documented how stereotypes can lower girls’ aspirations for science and engineering careers over time and sought solutions to eradicate the common misconception in the classroom. “When test administrators tell students that girls and boys are equally capable in math, however, the difference in performance essentially disappears, illustrating that changes in the learning environment can improve girls’ achievements in math[7].” By encouraging girls toward courses in STEM subjects and teaching them that they can be successful in these fields, we can overcome these harmful social stereotypes.

Only 1 in 5 undergraduates in the engineering school at the University of Nevada are female.

The research in underlying biases that fuel these stereotypes are aimed at understanding how implicit prejudice compromise female success rates in math. A working study from the National Bureau of Economic Research shows teachers have biases that can push girls away from math and science early on. Biased grading then affects courses and career decisions girls make later in life[8]. The study measured teacher’s bias by looking at exam scores first graded by a teacher who was aware of a given student’s gender and then graded by a group of teachers who didn’t know gender information. The conclusion was that teachers had a “systematic bias against girls in the marking of math exams” — their scores overstated boys’ math skills and understated girls’ skills. There are significant consequences to this bias as girls tend not pursue higher-level math courses in middle school and high school, affecting their entrance courses in higher education[9].

Research from the American Association of University Women (AAUW) found similar bias in workplace structures. “People judge women to be less competent than men in “male” jobs unless they are clearly successful in their work. When a woman is clearly competent in a “masculine” job, she is considered to be less likable. Because both likability and competence are needed for success in the workplace, women in STEM fields can find themselves in a double bind[10].” These are disappointing finds for teachers who work in developing children toward STEM careers and even more to employers and coworkers who work with women in STEM fields. But scientists agree that the best way to overcome bias is to know exactly how your own underlying prejudice might be affecting your work and the work of others. AAUW suggests taking the online implicit bias test at to help identify and understand personal biases in order to work toward compensating for them.

A girl climbs a tree at Grizzly Creek Ranch while learning science in the outdoors.

A girl climbs a tree at Grizzly Creek Ranch while learning science in the outdoors.

In addition to the great evidence of misinformed stereotypes and implicit bias, there are also differences among female and male cognitive abilities that can deter women from entering STEM fields. The research does not suggest that boys are better at math or science, just that the current teaching model better speaks to the male way of learning than the female learning model. Dr. Shannon Chance, a Marie Curie Research Fellow exploring how to make engineering education more effective for women and minority students says, “We know from student development theory that women learn differently. They learn in interconnected ways and in interpersonal ways, so they like to know how what they are learning relates to other information, and they like learning with other people.” These cognitive differences point to the need for schools and educators to implement gender-difference teaching in their learning models, but also suggests environmental education could be more beneficial to young girls than previously realized.

Many children, especially girls, believe that being good at math and science is an innate ability. They believe you’re either good at math or you’re not. This thinking is what researchers are calling a lack of “growth mindset”[11]. Boys are more likely to believe that there is potential for intellectual growth, meaning learning expands with experience and learning. Children with a greater “growth mindset” tend to do better on math tests, and those who do better in math are more likely to say they want to continue to study math in the future. Fortunately, scientists find the “growth mindset” can be developed by positive messages in grading and task assessments. Encouraging students by demonstrating that practice and experience with the material can improve scores and comprehension will help to involve students in a mindset imperative to their success.

The most prevalent issue of the cognitive divide is female and male apprehension of spatial skills. Spatial skills have great importance in engineering, physics, and other science fields. Spatial skills are developed when children interact outside, create structures, look at maps, and work with their hands. But girls consistently score lower on spatial skill tests than boys. This gap is often attributed to a lack of female experience in such areas. Studies find that girls are 16% less likely than boys to be taken outside to play by their parents. The deficiency in outside play adds to lower female spatial skills and affects their aptitude in STEM subjects[12]. It is no surprise that students involved in outdoor environmental education, where building of spatial skills is prevalent, score better on standardized math and science exams[13]. Outdoor education fits the education model that research shows girls excel in. Learning in outdoor programs allows children to associate their skills to other interconnected topics like biology, earth science, writing, and much more. By working in groups students expand their skills in settings where they learn best.

Studies find that girls are 16% less likely than boys to be taken outside to play by their parents. The deficiency in outside play adds to lower female spatial skills and affects their aptitude in STEM subjects.

This important research will allow us to make better decisions about our children's’ education. Nationally, organizations like Girl Scouts of America promote STEM fields through workshops based in 3-D printing and modeling[14] as well as developing websites, information technology, and computer understanding through their online cookie business sales[15]. The Advancing Girls of STEM Act of 2014 proposed by the U.S. House of Representatives directs the Department of Education to award grants to states to carry out programs that promote the involvement of elementary and secondary female students in STEM fields[16]. These are great steps toward closing the gap of men and women in STEM careers.

In Northern Nevada, various efforts among parents, teachers, schools, and organizations are working to improve the situation even more. There are a growing number of resources through the Northern Nevada Girls Math & Technology Program[17], high school initiatives like the Galena High School Stem Academy[18], the opening of the UNR Living Learning Community residence hall developed for young women who are majoring in science, engineering and math degree programs[19], advanced educator tips,[20] and professional development are catalysts for change in our local community.

These efforts are important in creating encouraging environments for girls that counteract harmful stereotypes and biases. Progress in developing the cognitive growth necessary for skills in STEM is only obtainable if we understand the most effective forms of teaching. If girls grow up in an environment that cultivates their success in science and math, they are more likely to develop their skills as well as their confidence in considering a future STEM career.

  13. Athman, J. & Monroe, M. (2004). “The Effects of Environmentbased Education on Students’Achievement Motivation,” Journal of Interpretation Research, 9(1): 9-25.; Ernst, Julie Athman & Monroe, Martha. (2004). The effect of environment-based education on student’ critical thinking skills and disposition toward critical thinking. Environmental Education Research, 10(4): 507-522.